If You Believe
Page 19

 Kristin Hannah

  • Background:
  • Text Font:
  • Text Size:
  • Line Height:
  • Line Break Height:
  • Frame:

"It's darker than hell out here and I have no idea where the river is."
Mariah ground her teeth in frustration. He was right, of course. There was no way he could find the river without her assistance. She hugged herself tightly and tapped her foot impatiently.
Don't let him get to you, Mariah. Keep your distance,
"Fine, Mr. Stone. I'm waiting."
He loped up behind her. She felt each crunching step like a slap.
"You there?"
"Right here."
He moved toward her. She felt his hand close around hers; strong, long fingers slid gently between her own.
She stiffened, tried to yank her hand away.
He held fast. "I wouldn't want to get lost," he said with a soft laugh.
Mariah tried not to notice how good it felt to be touched by him, how warm his skin felt against hers. "F-Fine," she said. "Let's go."
He pulled her close and whispered in her ear. "Yeah, let's."
A flurry of emotions hurtled through Mariah as she led Mad Dog through the darkened orchard. Her senses seemed heightened in the shadowy half world of time that was neither night nor day. His fingers, curled warm and protectively around her own, felt like a lifeline in the darkness. A connection to another human being that she hadn't had in years.
It had been so long since a man had touched her. Even in passing. And now someone was holding her hand. She felt a hundred intense, unexpected emotions all at once—giddy, desperate, frightened.
The feelings were foreign and yet frighteningly familiar. She tried to convince herself that she didn't desire Mad Dog Stone, not even a little bit. That any woman would feel a spark of response in this situation. And she even knew that on some level it was true. Any woman would respond to a man like him.
But there was more to it. God help her, even after everything that had happened to her, with everything that she knew about Mad Dog, he still touched something inside her. Something that hadn't been touched in a lifetime and was desperately in need of warmth.
By the time they reached their destination, dawn had dressed the farm in pinks and golds. Strands of rosy dawn light slid through the shadowy orchard and licked the foamy swirls, of the river. The quiet lap-gurgle-splash of the water against the muddy bank was the only sound in the world.
For a split second Marian hesitated to tell Mad Dog they'd reached the fishing hole.
She knew he'd pull his hand away then, and she'd be as she was before. A woman unconnected and alone.
She sighed, and in the silence the sound was achingly pathetic. Was she really so lonely that holding a man's hand—even Mad Dog's—could reduce her to silent lies?
"We're here," she said, wishing she could put a stronger spine in her words.
Instead, they sounded wistful and vaguely disappointed. Exactly the way she felt.
He waited a heartbeat, then let go of her hand. The cool breeze immediately rushed in, chilling flesh that moments ago had been warm and damp and joined.
She dropped the tackle box and rods. They hit the grassy earth with a jangling thud.
Mad Dog sat down and stretched his long legs out. Leaning back on his elbows, he grinned up at her.
Reaction set her fingertips trembling. God, how long had it been since a man had looked at her like that? As if she were young and beautiful ... as if she mattered. The warm humor in his eyes snagged a corner of her heart, made her yearn again for that amorphous something that she'd never known.
"You gonna stand there all day?"
Marian felt as if she were melting. She swallowed hard, trying to remind herself that he was a no-account drifter who offered nothing but pretty words and a quick good-bye.
Their gazes met. The cocky grin faded slowly from his lips. He gave her a look so smoldering and intense, Mariah's knees almost buckled.
"Mariah," he whispered. Straightening, he reached a hand up to her.
She couldn't have drawn back her hand to save her soul. She placed her fingertips on his warm palm. A shiver went through her at the contact. Slowly she sank to her knees beside him.
Please, she thought, drowning in his steel gray eyes. Touch me before I remember you're someone I can never have.. ..
But it was too late. She'd already remembered.
Trembling, she drew her hand back and tried to smile. "You want a cup of coffee?"
"That's not what I want, and you know it."
She pulled her gaze away from his compelling eyes and stared hard at her lap.
"Don't look at me like that."
"Like what?"
Reluctantly she eased her chin up and met his gaze. "Like you want something from me."
"But I do. I want—"
She brought a hand up. "Don't say it. Please."
She was kneeling in the cold, damp grass beside him. Moisture seeped though her woolen skirt and thick winter underwear, but she barely noticed. Her every sense was focused on the man sprawled casually beside her.
He half turned, half rolled toward her. "You intrigue me, Marian. Is there something wrong with that?"
A quavering heat moved through her body at his simple words. They were exactly what she'd come to expect from him. Not a false proclamation of love, not even a declaration of desire. Simply a devastating statement of fact. You intrigue me.
Suddenly she was afraid of him, afraid with every particle and fiber of her being.
She might be able to defend herself against pretty words, might even be able to thwart her own desires, but his honesty was somehow stronger, more potent, than she could bear.
She squeezed her eyes shut, fighting for control. Trying to find the casual armor that would keep him away from her . . . keep her own yearnings at bay. She forced a brittle, frightening laugh. "Mr. Stone, must you say everything that comes into your head?"
Mariah had no answer for that, no quick self-defensive comeback. After a few interminable, heart-thumping seconds, she opened her eyes.
And found him staring at her.
Her breath caught. She became achingly aware of the sounds of the dawn: the water's current, the wind's caress, his even breathing. The unfamiliar soap and woodsmoke smell of him filled her senses.
"Come here," he whispered.
She stared into his eyes and felt as if she were falling. She wanted to back away, needed to back away, but she couldn't.
Slowly—so slowly—she leaned toward him.
His hand came up. She felt his fingers, damp with dew and roughened by dirt, curl around her neck. His thumb brushed along her jaw in a feather-stroke. He drew her toward him, closer, closer, until she could feel his every breath like a caress against her tingling mouth.
Their lips touched. His tongue darted out, breezed along her lower, lip.
Mariah started to tremble.
"Mariah," he whispered, his lips moving gently against her own. "Don't . .."
She pulled backward, ashamed and humiliated and desperate. Her hands curled into tight, trembling fists in her lap. "I c-can't."
"Can'"t what?"
She refused to look at him. "You know."
He touched her chin with his forefinger, forced her to look at him. "Say the words."
She looked into his passion-darkened eyes and almost cracked. He wanted her. It was a dizzying, exhilarating sensation that soared through her blood like a burst of hot sparks.
Her self-control started to spiral away from her. She was inches—centimeters—away from throwing caution to the wind. She had to do something to keep him from kissing her again. She searched frantically for something to keep them apart, and came up with words. "I can't ... kiss a man whose name I don't even know."
Surprise widened his eyes. The lazy, promise-laden smile dulled. Frowning, he drew back.
Mariah's pent-up breath released. She'd done it, made him pull away. Thank God.
"You're good at it," he said softly.
Mariah shivered beneath his perceptive look. "Good at what?"
"Protecting yourself. The name bit was particularly clever, I'll give you that. But it won't work—at least, not for long."
"W-Why not?"
He leaned close enough to kiss her again, but he didn't. She felt his slow, even breathing like a whisper of promise against her mouth. "Because you want me."
Fear cascaded through her in an icy cold wash. She jerked to her feet. Stumbling through the fishing gear, she put some distance between them. "No I don't."
He grinned up at her. "Pretty fast moving for a lady who has no interest."
Get away from him, now. Before you do something stupid—
Mariah snatched up her skirts and headed back towards the house. "Catch your own fish, Mr. Stone. I have better things to do."
The rich, rumbling strains of his laughter followed her, nipped at her heels. She couldn't outrun it, couldn't ignore it.
Damn him—and damn her lonely soul. She knew why she couldn't outrun his words, couldn't forget the feel of his lips on hers. It was painfully, humiliatingly obvious.
He was right.
And they both knew it.
Mariah ran up the porch steps and flung the front door open. Skidding into the comforting darkness of the foyer, she sank onto the cushioned bench and let out her breath in a quivering sigh. She slumped forward and covered her face with her hands.
Her whole body was trembling, and she couldn't stop it.
"Oh, God ..." she whispered into her hands, feeling the moist, humid heat of her own breath. For a second there she'd forgotten everything, her past, her pain, her future. She'd wanted him to kiss her, wanted it with a desperation that left her shaken and weak and defenseless.
She'd come so close to destruction. . . .
But not close enough. She forced the harsh words into her mind. She hadn't succumbed; that's what she had to focus on, that's what she had to remember. She had to focus on the success; not how close she'd been to failure. She'd felt vulnerable, but she hadn't let herself be vulnerable. Thankfully, there was a difference.
She'd been tempted, but she hadn't given in.
Gradually her breathing normalized. Her fear slid back into the dim recesses of her mind. Slowly she pushed to her feet and headed into the kitchen.
In the doorway, she came to a stumbling halt. Jake was at the kitchen table, alone.
He sat slumped in his chair, his elbows rested on the oilclothed table, his face cradled in his hands. He looked sad and lost and alone. Exactly the way she felt.
Her heart went out to him, twisted hard. Where were his parents? Who cared for him when he was sick and kissed his cheek when he was depressed? Who darned his socks and answered his boyish questions about the world?
The concern helped her, made her focus on his pain instead of her own. Before she knew it, she was moving toward him. Beneath her feet, the floorboards creaked.
He looked up, startled. "Miss Throckmorton—"
She smiled. "Call me Mariah."
His hands plunged beneath the table. "R-Rass told me to meet him here before breakfast."
She poured two cups of steaming, fragrant coffee and went to the table. Setting one down in front of him, she sat beside him. "You don't have to explain, Jake. You're welcome here."
His eyes rounded. Then slowly his shoulders sagged. A tired, lonely breath escaped him. "Thanks."
Mariah's own breath caught. She could tell how much her simple words had meant to him. She wondered again about his life, wondered if he'd ever belonged anywhere.